A history exam question asking Hong Kong students to assess colonial Japan’s occupation of China yesterday sparked a rebuke by Beijing and reignited a dispute over academic freedoms in the territory.
The criticism came as Hong Kong’s schools and universities became the latest ideological battleground in a territory convulsed by political unrest.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and state media rounded on a university entrance exam question that asked students to decide whether Japan’s invasion of China in 1900 “did more good than harm.”
“Hong Kong’s education sector must not become a chicken coop without a roof,” the ministry wrote on Facebook.
“Hong Kong’s [exam] question leads students to be traitors,” the state-run Global Times newspaper wrote.
Japan’s colonial occupation of parts of China between 1900 and 1945 was brutal, and led to millions of deaths.
Mainland China’s schools and universities are strictly controlled, with little deviation from tolerated Chinese Communist Party lines.
Hong Kong has a much freer system that encourages debate and analysis, but education is becoming a new target for Beijing after months of huge and often violent democracy protests rocked the territory last year.
The chicken coop metaphor was used by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) last week when she said that liberal studies — a secondary-school class that teaches critical thinking — helped fuel last year’s unrest.
The subject has become a bete noire for Chinese state media and pro-Beijing Hong Kong politicians, who have called for more openly patriotic education.
Lam promised to unveil plans to reform the subject later this year.
The Hong Kong Education Bureau criticized the territory’s exam board saying it was “hurting the feelings and dignity of the Chinese people.”
It described the question as “a leading one” and demanded a response from the exam board, but the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union said that the government was “placing politics above education.”
“In order to pursue political correctness, the education bureau is smothering the space for discussion in exams,” the teachers’ union said.
Hong Kong Legislator Ip Kin-yuen (葉建源), who represents the education sector, said that students would be expected to know and write about Japan’s violent excesses in any exam question assessing the nation’s legacy within China.
“Students ... can use what they know to discuss against a statement, this is very common in a history exam,” Ip said.
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